Theatre yesterday and today



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When listening to music on the many devices I own, I'm fond of employing the shuffle mode. It's fun not to know what's coming next, especially as your personal library will rarely, if ever, betray you. It also offers some interesting juxtapositions. For example, this morning while out walking my dog, I heard Ben Platt sing "Waving Through a Window" followed by Frank Sinatra singing "I'll Only Miss Her When I Think of Her." The only thing these songs have in common is that they were both written for Broadway shows. And it got me thinking about the major difference with songs written for the theatre today as opposed to the ones when Sinatra was in his prime during what is now referred to as the Golden Age of musicals.

That period was back when radio (and to some degree television variety shows) was a thing that forcefully fed a beast, making it de rigueur for hit songs to be covered by artists of every stripe. After all, it's why they were called popular songs. And with so many of the major composers of the day writing for film and theatre, it was no wonder that a song like "Hey There" from the 1954 Broadway musical The Pajama Game, would be recorded by nearly every major recording artist of the mid-to-late 1950s. Sammy Davis Jr., Rosemary Clooney, Johnnie Ray, Sam Cooke, Peggy Lee, Julie London, Sarah Vaughn ... the list goes on (though oddly Sinatra never recorded it). Songs like "Hey There" also didn't hurt the box office when audiences went to a musical confident in knowing there was one song they already knew.

Which prompts the question that with Dear Evan Hansen a bona fide Broadway smash, if the market still existed that allowed for a singer to record "Waving Through a Window," would it make its way up the charts? I can't say for certain, but it's pretty safe to assume it would, providing there were singers to put their own stamp on it and make it their own.

Compilation released in 1965 on Frank Sinatra's own recording label, Reprise.

Which brings me to one of my favorite albums from the Broadway musical's Golden Age, the 1965 release of Frank Sinatra's My Kind of Broadway. This was an album Sinatra didn't record in a studio, but rather was culled from previous sessions. As one example of its eclectic quality, it features songs from nine different arrangers and composers, very different from the way Sinatra would usually craft an album from scratch. I love the diversity of the tunes and the range of stylings, from the mournful slow-to-build rendition of Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson's title song from their 1949 collaboration Lost in the Stars, to the swing version of Frank Loesser's classic "Luck Be a Lady" from Guys and Dolls. This is perhaps the most famous cut on the album, due mostly to the fierce Nelson Riddle arrangement that was used to hilarious comic effect in Mrs. Doubtfire, as well as on various TV commercials over the years.

In addition to the title tune from a hit musical like Hello, Dolly!, Sinatra includes two songs from a Broadway failure, Skyscraper, which opened to mixed reviews in November of 1965, two months after this album came out. That can only mean one thing — that both “I’ll Only Miss Her When I Think of Her” and “Everybody Has the Right to Be Wrong” were slipped to Sinatra by two of his best friends and favorite songwriters, the composer Jimmy Van Heusen and the lyricist Sammy Cahn.

1965's Skyscraper, Julie Harris's one and only Broadway musical.

Cahn and Van Heusen were the team responsible for some of Sinatra's biggest hits like "My Kind of Town" (written for the film musical Robin and the Seven Hoods, and from which this album takes its title), as well as "Call Me Irresponsible," "All the Way," and "Come Fly With Me" among many others. The two tunes from Skyscraper did not go on to become standards, but I for one think they're terrific, especially by way of the fine Torrie Zito arrangements produced exclusively for Sinatra (which you can hear repeated in this live performance Sinatra gave on the old TV variety program, The Hollywood Palace).

As an aside, not being familiar with his career, my curiosity got the better of me so I looked up Torrie Zito and was pleased to see that (among other career highlights) he was responsible for the string arrangements on the classic John Lennon album, Imagine. Nice.

There is only one song on My Kind of Broadway that isn't from a Broadway show, but from a film musical. And that's "Nice Work If You Can Get It," written by George and Ira Gershwin for the 1937 Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical Damsel in Distress. My guess is they needed one more song to round out the recording and figured no one would do the research to figure it out.

Lastly, there is one true anomaly on the album: "Golden Moment," from the musical Hot September. Never heard of it? Well, there's a reason for that. It was a 1965 musical version of William Inge's 1953 Pulitzer Prize winning play Picnic that never made it to Broadway. It closed out of town in Boston. With music by Kenneth Jacobson and lyrics by Rhoda Roberts, one can only conjecture that there were hopes that Hot September would be a hit and that "Golden Moment" had a shot at becoming a standard. Neither would come to pass, as after Hot September’s pre-mature closing, the team of Jacobson & Roberts never made it to Broadway. Looking up some of the songs from the score, I kind of wish Sinatra had recored the show's opening number "Another Crummy Day." I'd like to have heard that one.

One last thought: Maybe Ben Platt will become so famous that there will be a demand for him to record his own My Kind of Broadway. To paraphrase the title of a Broadway song that he might (or might not) record for the album, "There Are Worse Things He Could Do."

Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available at Amazon: HistoricalBroadway/dp/0998168629/ref=sr_1_4ie=UTF8&qid=1494611605&sr=8-4&keywords=up+in+the+cheap+seats+book